There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Monday, May 26, 2008

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. on the bus

Finished "Benjamin O. Davis Jr.: American," an autobiography. I was introduced to the book by a conservative blogger I read who took exception to Barack Obama's March 18 speech on race in Philadelphia and in particular Obama's unwillingness then to denounce the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Listening to Senator Obama’s speech (and reading the transcript), I wondered if the candidate—or his spiritual advisor—ever heard of General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first African-American to reach flag rank in the U.S. Air Force.

General Davis, who passed away on Independence Day 2002, was a product of the hate-filled and racist times that spawned Reverend Wright’s anger. But the obstacles of that era had a far different impact on General Davis; he not only overcame the evils of racism and segregation, he shattered them, opening doors of opportunity and equality for thousands who followed.
Having now read the book, I agree that Davis and his career are truly inspiring. But to suggest that Davis himself "shattered" the evils of racism and segregation suggests a radicalism that did not exist. Davis was determined to prove that he was equal to any man, but he was determined to do it from within the system.

Davis was the son of the Army's first black general, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. When Davis Jr. graduated from West Point in 1936, the first black to graduate from West Point in the 20th century, he and his father were the only two black line officers serving in the U.S. Army. That is just amazing to me.

From Davis' entry into West Point until his retirement on Jan. 26, 1970, he lived 37 1/2 years under military control. And, as he points out, from 1936 until Aug. 1949, he had lived under complete segregation.
I was grateful to the Air Force for giving me an opportunity that did not exist for me anywhere else in the United States. It had given me a flying career, something I had always wanted. It had educated me at West Point, and it had handed me a Regular Army commission as a second lieutenant upon graduation. Initially the military had treated me badly, but eventually it had rewarded me with important assignments in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. I lived almost 14 years overseas in these assignments, developing an appreciation of and respect for people at all levels of life -- people who were different in appearance and culture from Americans, but who had the same aspirations. I learned to recognize arrogance and its killing effects on human relations. I also learned the meaning of the phrase "the equality of man."
My co-worker, Ginger Rutland, is personally familiar with Davis and the story of the Tuskegee Airmen he lead. Her father was a civilian contractor at Tuskegee during WWII, and she has cousins who were fliers. When I mentioned that I was reading Davis' biography, she said Davis wasn't a popular commander. He wasn't, as she put it, one of the guys. He was aloof. That comes through in the book.
The role I had played as commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 332d Fighter Group, and the 477th Bombardment Group had not been easy, primarily because of the segregation that had then weighed so heavily on the lives of all black officers and airmen. The very nature of segregation was demeaning, and its effect upon its victims was deadening. I had found it absolutely necessary to compound the troubles of black officers and airmen by asking that they perform better than their contemporaries in comparable white Air Force units. The eventual result of these demands was recognition throughout the Air Force of superior achievement, and in the minds of at least some of those under my command my actions were justified.
Davis was not a supporter of black separatists or even the concept of black self-identification. In 1972, the superintendent of West Point, Lt. Gen. William A. Knowland, asked Davis if he would provide a portrait that could be displayed in a place where cadets could be inspired by his example. "I find that many of our Black cadets are well aware of their heritage, but I believe public recognition of it would provide a welcome reinforcement," Knowland told Davis.

Davis initially agreed but then had a change of heart. "Having the views that I have," Davis explained, "I think it would be inconsistent for me to have my portrait displayed as 'a source of both satisfaction and inspiration' for black cadets, the reason simply being that there is a strong implication of the existence of a separate group in the Corps of Cadets. To some this concept is unimportant; to me it is most important because it is something I have lived with for a very long time."

It is this feeling of inclusion rather than separatism that explains the subtitle of his book: "American."

"We are all simply Americans," Davis explains. "Differentiations created by extensive statistical studies for no obvious purpose except to prove the superiority of a particular group are not helpful, and surely the unnecessary labeling of people by race, religion or ethnicity does nothing to bring the many diverse groups of American society together."

In 1987, when Davis went to West Point to do research for this book, the Visitors Center had an exhibit entitled "The Great Train of Tradition" that contained the pictures of outstanding West Point cadets from 1819 to 1950. As Davis explains, two men are included from his class of '36: William C. Westmoreland, "Chief of Staff, Army, Commander, Forces Viet Nam, and Superintendent"; and Davis, "World War hero, helped integrate Air Force."

Davis was not displeased with this honor. But it raises a point for me that I found troubling after I finished Davis' autobiography.

While the Army was segregated, Davis commanded troops in combat and attained a distinguished record for himself and the men he led. But what about after 1949? During the Korean War, he was sent to the Pentagon. He didn't serve in Korea until after the ceasefire. During the Vietnam War, the closest role he played was commander of the 13th Air Force, which was headquartered at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. The 13th Air Force acted as the logistical wing of the war effort.

Yes, Davis played important roles within the bureaucracy of the Army and the Air Force, but why was he never again put in an air combat role in wartime?

For students of black history, this is a worthwhile, if dry, volume.

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